General Futuristic

The Transceiver

A cold shudder runs through me as I look through the one-way mirror at the psycho in the orange jumpsuit who’s handcuffed to the table. What I’ll see in his head, what I’ll feel and experience first hand will be like living nightmares. I don’t know if I can handle them. I’ve seen some terrible things, but nothing like what he’s done.

The psycho raises a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to his mouth, but the chain connecting his handcuffs to the table is too short, so when he gets the cup halfway up, his arm jerks to a stop and the coffee spills onto the lap of his bright orange coveralls. He swears and frantically squirms in his seat to stop the coffee from scalding him. The pained look on his face tells me that he isn’t succeeding.

Good, I think. He deserves that. That’s fitting for a guy like him. That’s perfect.

He plunks the cup down in front of him and shakes the hot brown liquid from his hands, which sends his chains rattling and clanking over the table’s black metal top.

He doesn’t look like much sitting there, coke-bottle glasses, short salt and pepper hair, and so skinny he seems lost in those orange overalls. With what they told me about him, I imagined some beefy guy with tattoos of little spiders at the corner of his eyes and pipes the size of my head–not somebody who could have been my grade 9 science teacher.

Let someone else do this, my inner voice tells me. Don’t they have people trained to do stuff this? Why the hell does it have to be me?
Then I remind myself of the deal I made, a deal I’ll find nowhere else: get what the authorities need from this lunatic and then the agency goes back to working out how to shut off this mechanism in my head.

Life will be worth living again without it.

Truth Banks

I stare at the gap between the mountain peaks of data. There’s been a break-in.

“Backups?” I say. Fresh snow crunches under our steps.

“Checked. Same gap everywhere.”

I picture the satellites containing the data of the Truth Banks, the supercomputers buried deep underground with backups and revision history, the top-secret security systems. If there’s one heist impossible to pull it’s this one, and yet the fifteen millisecond gap is right before me like a splinter in the holograms.

“Have you sent agents to verify?”

He flips the holo-generator’s lid back on and pockets the device. “Of course, Marcus.”

We turn right in a side-street. As a warning, he’s brought Lilly. She rushes ahead of us, spinning in the falling snow.

He says, “There’s a timer in the code, counting down. To what, we don’t know, but it’s unstoppable. You have until sunrise to find them.”

Lilly gathers snow with her purple gloves, throws the snowball at me.

“And after this?” I say.

Toothy grin. “You do this right, Marcus, and you get her back.”

Fists in my pockets. I nod.

Crouching to give Lilly a kiss on the cheek. “I am your daddy and I will always love you,” I say.

She giggles. “You are funny,” she says.

The agent pats her on the head, still grinning. “I think you’re right, Lilly. He is funny.”

I wipe my tears off with a sleeve, and fixing him a look of utter contempt, start my stopwatch.

The Opening

Vala glided over to the ganglion she was to be operating that day. It was always oppressively cold in the extremities of their Gracious Host, but she knew she would soon be warm, or at least oblivious, in her neural nest.

She was unpleasantly surprised to find that the Consecrated Pilot she was replacing was the survivor they had picked up, Drexel. The one who had an Opening when the Worm he had been piloting fell in battle.

She knew it was pointless to begrudge him his success, so she took a deep breath and then tapped his helmet to let him know she had arrived. His eyes opened slowly. His pupils were great black disks and seemed not to see her. What had those eyes seen? He nodded to indicate that he was sending a request for temporary CNS control of the ganglion during the shift change. He continued to stare at nothing for several moments, until his pupils contracted back into awareness, and his body shivered into life.

She carefully withdrew the terminal spike from his helmet and placed it in the sheath, formally severing his Communion with the nervous system of the Gracious Host. Then she grasped his forearms, planted her feet in the mound of neural flesh, and pulled him out of the morass. The zero-g inertia carried him to the opposite wall. He flipped around to plant his feet on it, and pushed off with just enough force to come lightly to a stop, floating just in front of her.

“Anything interesting during your shift?” Vala asked.

“Nope,” she heard his reply broadcast into her earpiece. “Smooth sailing.” Drexel clasped Vala’s forearm, and Vala reciprocated, inwardly cringing. He helped her up into the fleshy mound, and she soon found herself up to her chest in tissue.

Drexel removed the terminal spike from its sheath. Just as he was about to plunge it through the hole in Vala’s helmet and into her skull, she said, “Wait. What was it like?”

“What was what like?” he asked.

“The Opening!” she responded.

He smiled. “Like the brushing of cloth against your skin, or the scent of the meditation hall.”

“No, really, what was it like?”

He laughed, and his almond eyes seemed to glow. “Come talk to me in the mess after the ceremony. But for now, CNS is waiting on you.” Then he thrust the terminal spike into her brain.

She gasped, as she always did, as her normal sensory space was submerged in that of their Gracious Host, Mzee. Mzee was a massive space-faring creature dubbed a “Turtle” after the terrestrial organism it resembled. If a diamond-hard, jet-black photosynthetic sphere with a mouth stalk and eight limbs for grasping food and firing pellets to attack and maneuver could be said to resemble a turtle.

Once fully connected, the bland taste of empty space-time filled Vala’s mouth, but she could also detect the dim bitterness of the sun, vague pinpricks of flavor from the stars, and the mild sweetness of a distant asteroid. This was her brain’s synaesthetic interpretation of Mzee’s acute sense for space-time curvature. As for the Turtle’s electromagnetic sense, she soon heard her own voice chiming as Mzee emitted a radiolocation wave, and her body then warmed when the wave returned to tell her how far away they were from their quarry.

Sage Bindeen was personally directing the CNS today, and her voice sounded in Vala’s mind. We’re still pursuing the enemy Worm that killed ours. We’ve identified it as Tovian, but we don’t expect to catch up to it for quite a few shifts. It seems to be headed for the closest asteroid, which was recently ceded to us by the Nation of Tove. We’ve requested reinforcements, but we remain the only unit in the area and have been ordered to intercept. Hold the course.

Since today there were no changes in momentum to be made by firing pellets, Vala’s task, as on most days, was to focus on keeping her assigned extremity absolutely still and prevent any rebellion- “disharmony” was the preferred term- on the part of the Gracious Host, and in so doing hone her own mind through the exertions of Communion. Mzee didn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight today, but any lapse in vigilance might give the Turtle a chance to act up and embarrass her. She was determined not to let that happen again.

The shift was mostly uneventful, until at one point she had the eerie sensation that she was not in control of her body. It passed quickly, however, and by the end of the shift it was the continued failure of her ego to dissolve that still bothered her most.

Cuts

She despised all Welfare Centres as a general rule, but most especially this one.

She’d waited three hours in an uncomfortable metal chair, watching the news channel on the muted viewscreen, night-vision images of gunfire, bombs and airstrikes. Eventually, the display light at the service desk buzzed garish red neon with her name: “Frankie Simkins”.

With a struggle, using her crutch to get up, she hobbled across the wipe-clean flooring. While she’d been sitting waiting, the floor had been sheened over by KleenBots twice; first when a thin, sickly-looking child puked all over himself and the floor, and second when an old man had urinated on it, shouting something threatening in a foreign language. Security had arrived and took him away, then the KleenBots had buzzed in.

Frankie got to the appointed desk without slipping over and sat down.

The Welfare Officer was a woman, bland-looking, severe.

“Mrs Simkins?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“How can Welfare help you today, Mrs Simkins?”

“I, erm…I need a crisis loan.”

“I see.” The WO prodded buttons on her computer, and scanned the screen.

“Mrs Simkins, you’ve had three Crisis Loans from us in the past four years, one of them still outstanding. You don’t qualify for another.” The WO was closing the file on the computer; that was it, it was not negotiable.

“But I can’t afford it any more. Everything’s gone up. I can’t pay my bills. Please, make an exception, I’m begging you.”

“Mrs Simkins, you’re aware of the current state of the economy? And the war, too is very expensive. You don’t qualify for another loan.”

“But I’ve got a family to feed. Please… look…do you have any children? You must know what it’s like?”

“My status is of no concern here,” said the WO plainly.

“Please help me.” Frankie was close to tears now, but trying to sniff the emotion back into her nose. “I need help.”

“You know the procedure, Mrs Simkins. There can be no loan,” She swiped at her computer screen; “Do you still have three children, Mrs Simkins?”

“Yes, three. Jilly’s just a baby, I can’t afford her milk formula.”

“Are you telling me you’d like me to open a Social Care Order?”

“What’s that?”

“We would redistribute your baby. It would ease your financial situa-”

“No! No-one’s taking my baby!” Frankie nearly screamed, between tears now too numerous to dam.

“Then perhaps you would like a token to take to your clinic. The State would meet the cost of your womb being biologically dessicated.”

“I can’t do that! I’m only 28. Look, it’s just my budget’s really squeezed. I can’t feed-” She nearly said, ‘I can’t feed my kids’, but stopped herself; they would probably be taken away if she said that. “Me and my husband barely eat. The kids get it all. Please, I just need a few hundred.”

“I see your husband works in the Uranium Plant. A labourer. Are you still looking for work, Mrs Simkins?”

Frankie’s tears stopped with astonishment. She stood up on her crutch and took a couple of hops away from the desk. “Haven’t you seen my problem? How am I supposed to keep a family together and clean and fed, and then go out to work and labour somewhere. Who would employ me?” She aimed her plastic stump at the Welfare Officer. “I’ve only got one bloody leg, for Christs sake!”

“OK, Mrs Simkins, please sit down. There’s no need for hysterics.” She swiped more screen, ruffled more papers. Frankie sat back down.

“Clearly you know all the benefits of the system,” the WO said,
“Therefore you know that there will be no crisis loan today, or in fact, any other day until you’ve repaid what is outstanding.”

Frankie was about to get up and leave; she was considering urinating on the floor on her way out.

“All we can offer is to further lighten your load…if you were willing to make a Contribution to the War Effort. I’m obligated by my employers to inform you that a single Contribution to the State will lessen your nutritional needs and therefore your personal food intake by up to nine percent. With a hungry family to feed, this could make your life just that tiny bit easier. And, of course, you’d also receive all the appropriate benefits for your Contribution, which now include the new Severance Allowance for six months.”

Frankie was dabbing her eyes; the tears had gone, but reality remained.

“Just one more loan,” she said. “That’s all I’m asking. I’m desperate.”

“Desperate times require desperate measures, Mrs Simkins.”

Frankie sighed, defeated. “But…it’s hard now. How would I manage?”

“You seem to be a strong woman…but something in your family has to give. The baby is still an option.”

“No. God, no,” said Frankie. She sat for a moment, head bowed, weighing up the devil and the deep blue sea.

“Alright,” she said, finally, “if there’s no other way… I suppose I’ll have to…”

The WO reached into a drawer for the correct papers, and began to put the process in motion.

“…before I change my mind.” Frankie said under her breath.

Applications were filled, papers signed, and financial support determined in a little under twenty minutes. Frankie had remained mostly quiet; she was deflated, beaten.

“Ok, Mrs Simkins, that’s all correct,” said the WO and pointed to the far end of the office. “Booth number six has just become free. You can go straight in. Your new benefit package will begin immediately. Thank you once again for your worthy sacrifice to our great country. Goodbye, Mrs Simkins.”

Frankie hauled herself up, massaged her palms on her forehead, and hobbled over to Booth Six. The door was standing open, and she went in, forcing herself not to hop like hell away from the place.
In the room was a man in a white plastic coat. He closed the door behind her, and slipped on the ‘engaged’ sign.

“Hello again, Mrs Simkins,” he said, quite cheerily, as he changed his white rubber surgeons gloves, “What did you have in mind, this time?”

Frankie was crying again, and shaking her head.

“Oh, don’t you fret,” said the doctor, as he handed her a surgical gown. “They graft them on really quickly these days, and they’re so much more versatile than the prosthetics. Six months or so, and our boys and girls are back on the front line. If you could just get changed into the gown please.”

Frankie began to cross the room, heading for the changing area.

“What do you think, then?” the doctor said, as he readied the anaesthetic mask. “Perhaps an arm this time? Those robotic ones are so fiddly; our soldiers like nothing better than real fingers.”

Ephemerality

I saw him on a walk after Learning. I don’t usually interact with long people, but when I saw him brush his shining black hair from his eyes, I was transfixed. I waited around the pool until he came off the stand.

“My name’s Cali,” I said. He towered over me. I hadn’t been able to see how tall he was from a distance. My whole body tingled. I shouldn’t be doing this.

“Can I help you?” His voice was soft, with a hint of an accent. Maybe Thai? I’d query it in Learning tomorrow. “I’m off shift right now, but I suppose I could answer a quick question.”

“Oh, I’m not a pool patron,” I said too quickly, trying not to let my face grow hot. “I’m new in town,” I said. I regretted the lie instantly. “But I thought you looked about my age…” far from it. He was teenaged and I was three.

“My name’s Kusa. I was about to go join my friends at the park. Do you want to come?”

I smiled and nodded.

Blindsight

Warren fell into the backseat of the taxi and let the stillness settle over him.

“The wind will tear the clothes off your bloody back,” the cab driver said.

“Yeah, well, at least it’s dry today.”

The cabby pulled away and switched on the radio. A sombre female reporter announced: It’s official, we can now add the Butterflyfish to the list of marine species extinct in the wild. Numbers of coral fish have dropped dramatically since the unexplained death of large parts of coral in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

“Is that for real, another one?” Warren said. He leaned forward. “Turn it up please?”

But it was too late; the reporter had moved on to the next horror story, yet another fatal air crash over the city. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch had cancelled all flights over central London until they carried out a full investigation into the multiple, seemingly unrelated accidents.

“Bloody madness,” the cabby mumbled. “People are wondering why this stuff is happening, ain’t they? Well, if they read the Bible they’d understand…”

Warren nodded politely and closed his mind to the cabby’s melodramatic reckonings. He was late visiting his mother and would have to put in another all-nighter at his lab tonight. The thought made his head throb.

The nursing home looked like the other neighbouring Victorian town houses. There was no shortage of profit in converting large houses into homes for the rising number of mentally ill. The only things that identified their purpose were subtle signs set back into the wide driveways. Warren’s mother, Joyce, had never outright said she liked it here, but Warren knew she enjoyed walking the grounds and listening to the residents natter.

Joyce was in her room. The walls were cream, the carpet a slightly darker wheatgrass. The cleaner had made the bed up with white linen to exact standards. Joyce’s only piece of personal furniture was her pale wooden chair with white floral cushions. A far-side window overlooked well-tended gardens, and the TV hanging from the wall angled down towards the chair, switched off. But Joyce stared up at it as if enthralled by an epic romance.

“Hi, Mum. What’s happening?”

She stiffened slightly, but didn’t face him.

Warren pulled up a stool from under a desk and lightly touched Joyce’s arm. Perhaps there was a hint of a smile, perhaps not.

“Are you okay, Mum?”

It was a standard question. He didn’t expect an answer, not when she was like this. He’d be lucky to get a coherent sentence out of her today.

“Work’s busy. The project deadline is this Friday and I haven’t even tested my scanning system yet.”
Joyce jolted like she’d just woken up. Her lips curled up into a sharp smile. “You better get it finished or they won’t pay you,” she said.

“Well, yeah. I know that, Mum. I was just… Never mind.”

“Your grandfather used to spend most of his money hot from the pay envelope, you know? The landlord of the Dog’s Inn did well, mind. I bet his daughters didn’t go hungry.”

Joyce’s breathing quickened, and her eyes glinted with tears.

“It’s okay.” Warren took her hand and looked her in the eye. “It’s my turn to look after you now, me and the nurses here.”

Joyce relaxed. Her frightened expression dissipated through an emerging smile, a breath-taking glimpse of the strong woman she had been. “Warren, I know you look out for me. You’re a good boy.” She giggled, then leant forward, her face darkened to a knowing frown. Warren braced himself.

“I see them every day now, the hidden people. They fly in the clouds and spit their germs down on us. They make us crazy.”

Warren choked back sorrow. “Things will get better. The work we’re doing is taking us closer to mapping the brain. We’ll soon understand why so many people are falling ill like you. Maybe, one day soon, we will find a cure.”

Joyce’s expression glazed over. Her gaze stared through her son. He waited a minute, still and silent, then leant forward and kissed her.

“See you tomorrow, Mum.”

No Other God Before Me

Darkness does not come gently to Chongjin. It doesn’t creep over the purpling hills and into the cracks, like back in Mexico City. It’s not Novosibirsk, where night falls like a cheap blanket, and you end up shivering even in the jaws of summer. There is no golden hour here, no photogenic streamers of twilight curling up through the flaking tenements, no calls of mothers to their children to find their way home. None of that, no. Over here, night is a sudden lead pipe to the back of the head. Breathe in while I’m turning a corner in one of the container crate shanty- towns ringing the city, still squinting into the desiccating crush of grimed daylight. Breathe out and everything goes black, a basement door slammed shut and nailed into place, right when I’d just managed to pick up the scent again. I try to relax, to give my senses some space to adjust, hoping the scattered doorframes of coal fires would be enough to illuminate the squeezing alleys with an ashen glow. But when my eyes keep drifting towards the poorly synched LED boards flickering to life, diffusing the maze of sheet metal and plywood into a limbo of dimly reflected Korean celebrities, I know it’s time to let the bike go before I smash myself into a wall. That’d be some future archaeologists wet dream, wouldn’t it? What’s this here stuffed between the rat skeletons, the packing peanuts and the inch-thick layer of feces? An Irishman having relations with a rental scooter? Surely there’s a prize for that.

I should have a plan to hide the bike away for later, but realistically, what were the chances it or I would be here again? So I hand the keys to an anonymous pair of outstretched hands and bowl the helmet down a septic drain. Without the wind and the visor I can really suck in a good bit of the world. The world immediately obliges back, crawling down my throat and up my nose before nesting in my paranasal attic. I take a few half-steps one way, then backwards again, spin half a clock. Calm down, try again. At least it’s not Nampo, no rusting helicopters constantly tumbling overhead, no roving bands of masked gunmen picking through the abandoned resorts for underprepared chaos-touristas. It’s actually still long enough for me to sort out the distinctive chemical trail from the sifting clouds of cooking oil, rotting garbage, drifts of methane. I lean west, there, closer, I can just about tongue the slot, when a trio of kids on ATVs scream past, each one carting a trailer piled high with corroded car batteries. The acid snaps at my membranes and immediately wipes the trail away. Well then. Fuck. Time to resign myself to an old fashioned hunt-and-peck.

Head down, micro-fiber scarf wrapped around my face, I barrel into the human smog of the open market. I get some strange looks, some defensive tugging at waistbands for a weapon, a phone, who cares. I’m not worried. Sometimes I believe I’m protected by the lingering halo of several decades of oppressive propriety, a shepherd still faintly recognized by the sheep. Or maybe I’m just another pale white asshole in a long line going back to the first sails that pricked their horizon. Either way, no one has the energy to bother with a foreigner sniffing around their blackened chickens and cisterns of baby formula.

It’s in the third row of makeshift tents, among a jungle of antiquated three-prong power cords, that I get another taste of it. I tug at my scarf. Barely there, just a few dozen molecules. Difficult to describe. Something like a pop of color, or a memory trapped in the back of your mouth. Just a hint, but more than enough to start pushing me back towards what I am. If you ask my employers, they’ll insist on labeling me a warrior, a samurai, their blessed servant of honor and virtue. Watch their faces and you’ll know it’s bullshit even as they say it, because what I really am is their dog, a bloodhound or a beagle, something low to the ground. That’s what they pay me to be, in cash and in life. Besides, from the scraps of history I’ve read on the subject, real samurai weren’t really known for their shoving through crowds and inconspicuously smelling the backs of stranger’s necks. And I’ve yet to find a museum with a woodcut of a samurai passed out in a filthy hotel room, bruised prostitutes weeping at his feet.

Soon I’ve caught another scent ribbon, purer this time, a solid synesthetic burst of lemon yellow. I ducked under the rubber tarp and there she is, a shriveled old woman peeking out from behind a stack of Batman t-shirts. Gentle cataracts, skin like onion paper. In the right light, she could have been one of my parishioners, back two lifetimes ago. Except … she stinks of it, packed into every wrinkle on her ancient face, balled up in her tear ducts, matted into her tightly knit hair. My anus clenches at the smell.

I stand in her cramped stall, filling what little space she had with my presence, my palms open between us as if to receive the rain. I withdraw the crucifix from the folds of my jacket and ask her one simple question, one of the few Korean phrases I’ve bothered to memorize, other than How Much and Like That and Get The Fuck Out Of My Face. But this one I know the best. I can say it in over a hundred different languages and dialects. It’s critical that I get it right every time, because this is how the Procedure starts.

“Do you believe?”

Back at the seminary, people always asked why the phrasing is so important. Why those exact words? The monk patiently explains the simulations, the models, the millions of A-B tests run against every personality type. He tells us, even if it seems too obvious, we know this is the right question, that it will open the door to grace almost every time. Then some cocky smart-ass, usually an American, invariably a Texan, inevitably raises his hands and says what about the times it don’t?

The monk sagely taps the Procedure and drags his finger to the bottom of the scroll.

Then, my child, you have permission to skip to the end.

The old woman doesn’t budge and I started to wonder if this was going to be one of those rare skips, but then her eyes suddenly widen as if I had just appeared out of thin air. A creaky grin sprouts from the wrinkles on her chin and she nods and the blue veins on her neck throb with life. I dangled the crucifix again in front of her face. No reaction. I make sure no one else can see us and with a magician flip of the wrist replace the crucifix with a porcelain cameo of Kim-Il Sung. She blinks at it, her thoughts stuttering again, then with a little sigh she shakes her head and disappears under the counter. My muscles instinctively tense, but all she dredges out is an ancient, dinged-up laptop. The hard drive lights flutter and photos start fading in and out of each other, tinted in false sepia. I don’t have to understand her words to know what she’s saying. This is my grandmother. This is our family farm. This is great-uncle whoever. This little girl, this is me, and I realize that she can’t be any more than thirty years old. This country ages its people with a rare furiousness. When I first crossed the abandoned border into the former DPRK, it was like walking into the pages of a dim fairy tale, and everyone I met was a ghost or a gnome.

She rubs her hands together and repeats the same invocation over and over again. Her fingers brush gently against a ceremonial bottle of wine and a bowl of steaming white rice. Ancestor worship. Not uncommon around these longitudes, just another variety of the sectarian froth that bubbled over the peninsula after the bloody pop of their totalitarian cork. Not that the particular flavor of faith makes a difference, not to me, certainly not to the Procedure. The only thing that matters is that it is unearned.

I break out my most benevolent smile and wave my hand in a circle, shrug my shoulders, point to her laptop. I show her my crucifix again, still warm. I pat my heart and in my best, mealy-mouthed translation, wonder aloud: Where Can I Get Some? She rewards me with a silly look, as if I was asking for directions to Neptune, and I’m already mentally preparing for another week in this shithole, sleeping in the corner of an abandoned shipping crate. Then she raises her finger and points over my head, out of the market, to the crystalline glow of the illuminated cranes clustered along the port. I raise my eyebrows, More Details Please? She taps the wine bottle, looks eastward again. I quickly duck under the tarp and make a tentative sniff towards the scab of supply warehouses and truck depots between us and the water. Nothing. Wait. On a feather of sea-wind, the hint of a memory. A glass of gin with a twist of lemon.

I thank her and bow deeply. She bows back, smiling, nearly giddy to have helped a fellow believer. The lines on her face melt away and I catch an idea of the girl she could have been. We appraise each other quietly. I’m counting the seconds in my head. The Procedure notes that the next step can be taken up to a minute later. I always wait that entire minute. I never start early.

Forty seconds. More ATVs roar by, accompanied by the jeers of youthful exuberance.

Fifty-two seconds. The woman gazes at the images on her laptop. I hear the rattle of her phlegm-drowning lungs. I smell the flush of sweat down her back. Love fills her body.

Sixty seconds.

The hilt is out of my pocket and in my hand. In a microsecond, a needle pricks my thumb, scans my blood, and the Word scalds the air between us in milky light. She raises a single finger, as if to shush me. Then her finger is gone, her arm is gone, her guts spill out onto the ground and then those are gone as well. I step into the space where she just was and cross myself, an old habit, before smashing her laptop under my boot. The digital spirits of her family tree flicker away in a crackle of plastic and silicon.

At two-hundred seconds, when the explosives go off, I’m already making my way towards the blue-haloed lights of the port, trying to ignore the sudden caress of thermabaric heat, carrying maroon notes of smoldering rubber, charred meat. Ashes to ashes, yes, I know.

Let’s Go Find Karl

Melinda Koi flexed her right hand, enjoying the new freedom the tune-up gave. The thumb still felt a little gummy, but it was better than it had been in months. Someday, she thought, she was going to get the whole prosthesis replaced. Mercedes were making some nice parts these days, but that would take a lottery win.

It made her think of Karl. She had to remind herself that it was okay to be not in love with him because he wasn’t really Karl anymore anyway. Her hand was a constant reminder.

“Earth to Mel,” Damon said.

“Sorry,” she said. She came away from the apartment’s balcony. Beyond, out over the bay, a gull called, looking for somewhere to settle for the night.

Inside Damon lay stretched out on the lie-low, staring up at her curve.

It hung over him, bowed and floating like a jellyfish.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Like I was trying to tell you. Messages from Karl. He wants us to bring out his lobotomy fragment.”

Melinda flexed her hand again. “Bring it where?” She glanced over at the icebox, glad that she’d been able to give the disgusting thing back to Damon. She had a tiny inkling that Damon had only shifted apartments so that he didn’t have to have it around. It had seemed like a favor, but four weeks with a piece of Karl’s brain in her refrigerator was a month too long.

“He says the DeCataur brothers want their money.”

Melinda sat on the velour squab next to the lie-low. Pulling up the side of the curve, she looked in at the display. Her thumb twitched.
The curve twisted a little, the display daughtering across and reformatting to her view. It showed her a news ticker. The DeCataur company facing more litigation and class-actions over the state of the Delaware Bay.

“Here.” Damon sat up. The curve flowed away, settling on the vertical, looking less like a sea creature and more like a television. The weather appeared as if it was going to rain once more. Damon spread his hands and the news ticker and weather faded into thin, faint strips around the edge with the ads for Coke and Hyundai. His mailbox filled the main part of the display. “Here,” he said, pointing at one of the messages.

Fourteen million. Can you get that through today?

“Fourteen!” Melinda said.

“Keep reading. It’s not that bad.”

The Land of Dreams

Cass set the last feed bucket down and leaned against the paddock fence, idly tugging a soft clump of gray-green dream pig fur out of the wire. The sun was breaking free of the distant mountains just in time to be swallowed up by blossoming amber clouds. She frowned, twisting the wool around her fingers. Just another normal day on the farm. Morning chores were almost done, but she couldn’t seem to settle into her usual rhythm. Even her eyes felt gritty and irritated. She rubbed at them with a cleanish patch of her shirt sleeve.

“Sleepy? Her father hung his elbows over the top wire casually, missing her mood entirely.

“Yup.” Cass shrugged. Agreeing was easier than trying to explain the restlessness that had been tugging at her. They stood side by side and watched while a couple of yearling dream pigs mock-battled over the last few bits of slop. Their curved horns clashed, donkey-sized bodies smacking into each other. “Hey, Pop? You ever thought about expanding the farm?”

“Into what?” His gaze stayed fixed on the posturing dream pigs, but his tone was carefully neutral, putting her on her guard. It was the tone that meant he already knew where he stood on a topic.

“I dunno. Maybe a few more hands to help around here. More stock. We have the best dream pigs around. Who knows? Maybe we could even have farms on other planets someday.” Cass watched him hopefully, for the first time letting her daydream sneak out into real life. There was no telling what might happen if they tried to make things better.

“I like it the way it is. We can manage what we have as a family. Tulandra’s where the dream pigs came from and Tulandra’s where they should be raised. Other planets won’t suit as well.”

“But you don’t know that.” Cass wanted to clang him on the head with the feed bucket. He was always so single minded.

“Getting the off-world itch, Cassie?” He might as well have asked her if the farm and her family weren’t good enough for her anymore. She knew it was what he meant. Her parents had worried about her wanting to leave since she had mentioned looking at off-world farming techniques once when she was fifteen. It was worse now that the new spaceport was finished barely twenty miles from the farm. She hadn’t missed the fact they weren’t all that keen on her running errands out that way alone or lingering there for any length of time.

“It ain’t that. It’s just – what we do is special. We could use that to make a better life.”

“Sometimes, when things get too big, they stop being special. Gotta give something to get something. What’re you willing to give up to make this place bigger? Your home? Your family? Get a bunch of strangers in here and that’s what might happen.”

“It was just an idea.” Cass shrugged, trying to brush off his dismissal. She didn’t think it was fair to assume that making the farm a little bigger would ruin their lives. She should have known better. He never wanted to hear her thoughts about farm stuff. “Don’t you ever get tired of it, Pop?” Cass looked out at the building cloud bank. If she looked him in the eye, he’d know she wasn’t ready to let it go. Then he’d get stubborn back and that would be that. “One bad flood, a new pig-plague, economy crashes…any of that or a thousand other things and we’ve got nothing. Nothing.”

“You think I don’t know that, Cassie? We’ve been here three generations now.” He looked at her like he had when she was six years old and tying bows in the piglets’ fur. “Jimmy’s family settled here around about the same time. Look at them now – no land left after the Land Grant Agency decided they hadn’t made good enough use of what they’d been given. Now they’re all stuffed in a little place in town, living off of what I can afford to pay him.”

“All the more reason to make things better here.” Cass turned towards him.

“Better means a bigger investment. We take enough risks relying so much on the dream pigs for profit. No.” When she opened her mouth to argue, he shook his head. “Leave it alone, girl. We’re doing well enough right now. Be happy with that.” The all-weather comm hooked to his belt beeped and he turned away from her to answer it.

Cass clenched her jaw. Maybe she was wrong. It just galled her that he was willing to settle for ‘well enough’.

“C’mon, enough sulking.” Pop clapped her gently on the shoulder. “Jimmy needs help with Tika. Birthing’s not going smooth.”

Cincinnati Steam Shovel Blues

Machinery daunted him, levers, gears, and all those moving parts, but Nester needed the work. After three days on the job, the longest stretch he had worked in one place for the past year, he finally settled in on a contraption the folks in salvage called a steam shovel. It was something they’d pieced together from a hodgepodge of spare parts, and as they were apt to do, salvage boasted of their success in bringing the thing to life.

Its boiler tank had been yanked off a driller in the salvage pit, apparently the only part on that rig not twisted up or fused together by a powder blast. The winch and steam engine they’d plucked off a rail tractor, and the axles and rims came from an ancient gasoline-powered truck excavated from the quarry bottoms. But her guts, they told him, the boom, crane and bucket, and all her pulleys, came from a Cincinnati steam shovel, probably the same kind their ancestors used to dig out the Great Quarry. It was equipment so well forged, they claimed, that, not only was it still salvageable after three hundred years in a rust heap, but the recognizable symbol of the Cincinnati Man stamped on every piece kept the company legend alive centuries after its demise. Every time Nester jerked back the boom handle and dropped the bucket for a scoop of soil, seeing that faded logo of a man in red boots standing on the edge of the earth with a hammer in one hand and spade in the other, made him feel as though he had traveled back in time.

“Fourteen in this batch, Nester. Nothing but proles and infantry.” Millie, who was dressed in her usual gray overalls, inspected a clipboard.

“One hole?” Nester scooped another load of coal into the firebox and stoked the flame.

“You’ll get used to it. If it bothers you, spade’s leaning by the shed.” Millie shrugged. “But I’ve never seen a one-legged man work a spade into this hard earth before.”

Nester nodded and eased back the lever, lowering the boom, bucket open. He carved a ditch as deep as a full-grown man and as wide as three men abreast as he backed the steam shovel toward a stone marker. Then Nester signaled his eleven-year-old son, Lemuel, who helped out at the burial yard because he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the school anymore.

Lemuel grinned and gave one of the corpses a kick in the head. Following a dust-up of lime, the body swung halfway over the edge of the ditch.

“Have some respect, boy,” Millie shouted. “Gently!”

Lemuel glared first at Nester, as though he expected his dad to keep quiet, then at Millie, who was a young woman about the age Lemuel’s mother would have been. And Nester did stay quiet. Nester’s own father would’ve wrestled him down and tanned his hide. But Lemuel wasn’t right in his head, and Nester already had to sleep with one eye open.

Millie marched over to the boy wagging her finger. “Look here. Nobody would know if we just threw these poor saps over into the garbage heap. But when I scratch the names on that stone,” she said, pointing to an irregular headstone in front of the steam shovel, “well, that’s all the mom’s of these kids have. And that’s who matters because that’s who’s still alive–moms.” Then Millie went on and on under her breath about the injustice of her being pulled off of book salvage duty to tend the dead yard. It made Nester nervous to watch Lemuel’s face during her rant, as though he enjoyed his time here among the dead.

“Now, give them stiffs a good sprinkle of lime. Or else they’ll get ripe on us.” Millie pointed to a mound of white powder with a spade sticking up out of it.

Nester hop-skipped over to the shed and studied the lime pile. At the same moment he heard a whoosh of steam behind him. His chest felt as though someone had clinched his heart up into a fist, the same feeling he got every time Lemuel got up to something awful.

Nester’s mouth gaped as though a bubble grew on his tongue big enough to hinge his jaw wide. The boom on the steam shovel lowered over the hole, gears grinding. In the window of the operator’s cab, Nester saw the face of his son, an innocent face, just like the one he wore the day he was born, his eyes wide, not wanting to sleep or cry or eat, just stare at things, at people, at Nester, as though he might climb right up in through Nester’s eyeball and rummage through his brain. Lemuel had just sat and stared for the better part of three years before he ever tried to make a word. That happy vacancy had dug into Nester, into Lemuel’s mother, the way the teeth on that steam shovel bucket ate chunks of the earth. On the far edge of the ditch, Millie, working the water pump, had her back to Lemuel as the bucket positioned over her head getting ready to drop.

Nester almost screamed, but Lemuel turned his head at that moment staring right at him, swallowing anything Nester planned to yell before it left his mouth. The bucket on the steam shovel lowered, jerking back up and down again. With the eleven-year-old at the lever, the crane arm swiveled back and forth before the bucket crashed into the ditch, missing Millie’s head by a hawk’s beak.

Millie hopped aside, landing flat on her back. “Mama Jones! That was close. You trying to kill somebody, Nester?”

Nester couldn’t move. He could only watch his son frustrated by the controls on the steam shovel, slamming the lever forward and then back again. “Lemuel.” Nester said, realizing he had said it so softly there was no chance anyone had heard him. “Lemuel,” he called louder, though still much too quietly.

Millie sat up. “Nester! What’s that boy doing in that shovel?” Her expression soured when she saw just how close the shovel had come from her head.

Nester dropped the spade and made his way for his son. “Nobody said you could get up there. Did they? Get down from there.” Sometimes Nester just wished Lemuel would say something, anything at all that would tether him in the regular world.

“Don’t bring that kid back here. Consider yourself canned if you can’t find a place for him.” Millie pointed at Lemuel as though she spotted a rat scurrying off the mooring line of a ship.

“All right, Millie.” Nester had heard those words before. He guided his son up to the top of the hill that overlooked a valley filled with headstones, each covered with columns of names. Nester knew he was supposed to cherish his boy, teach him the ways of manhood, let him learn from his mistakes, but he didn’t think Lemuel knew right from wrong. And without his mother to guide him through, Nester figured Lemuel might just be a bread loaf so molded—by the time all the green spots were cut out there wouldn’t be any bread left to eat.